Just Get It Done

Anthony McIntyre 🔖 Fortnight, July/August 2009 Governor, Inside the Maze by William McKee Gill & Macmillan Ltd (Feb 2009) Book Review.

The Father’s Day irony of receiving a gift a book on the Maze Prison written by a former prison governor was not lost on me. Buried in the administrative section for much of his career from 1977 when he first joined up, William McKee, with 15 years experience in the service to stand by him was becoming a governor at the time I was being released so I had no opportunity to cross his path.

Having just finished Sam Miller’s brilliant On The Brinks in which Miller detailed that portion of his life spent being maltreated by prison staff I did not feel quite ready to read another book about the Maze, even if on this occasion it was written from an entirely different perspective. As it was a Father’s Day gift I relented and read it on the day. I am glad that I did because there is an infinite range of worse ways to spend a Sunday than a good read.

It is sometimes said by people like me that the prison service is the only job in the world where you start at the bottom and work your way down. Former governor McKee might agree but only in a radically different context. His downward spiral within the service was one caused by severe stress and depression which led him to explore suicide, ended both his career and marriage, and for a long time put him on the psychiatrist’s couch where he was treated for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

It is this willingness to discuss his own mental health issues that helps make Governor a gripping read. It also places McKee in a position where he finds it easy to empathise with prisoners who undergo similar problems and to campaign for better conditions for that type of prisoner. While the death of Colin Bell from suicide in Maghaberry shows the revanchist mentality among prison staff, forever resentful of ground ceded to prisoners’ welfare, things have moved on from the days when a self righteous god crusading governor could tell some unfortunate prisoner to seek in his bible solutions for despair.

It would be wrong to say I expected more from this book. I expected something different. But William McKee, while in the prison service during the most troublesome of years, was not in the front line for some of the events the public would like to hear more on such as the Blanket protest, hunger strikes and the 1983 escape. It was his misfortune, however, to find himself as duty governor in charge of the prison on the day Billy Wright was killed by a three man INLA team, two of whom have since died. Throughout the book the Wright killing overshadows the narrative like a dark cloud waiting to open up and shower the author with a ponderous deluge. Leaping out from the pages is the feel that part of the reason for writing this book was a therapeutic one: William McKee needed to take a long run up to that inevitable confrontation with his demons. Page after page the reader senses him peering into that particular abyss before finally taking the plunge.

At some point during the inquiry into the Wright killing there was a suggestion made by another member of prison staff that McKee was known for telling porkies. There was a moment reached where I felt ready to concur as he began relaying tales that he had picked up at training college. I winced too soon. He as quickly explained that he had no way of authenticating any of the stories that he and his colleagues-to-be had been weaned on. The significance lies less in that and more in the fact that prison myths have developed and seemed to run without any substantiation. One is the tale of prisoners who had disappeared while in custody, never to be seen or heard of again. Can a name be put to any person that this might have happened to? Not a solitary one.

At one point the most puzzling of anecdotes appears in the book which conjures up images of sexual voyeurism. What were his editors doing? McKee was on duty as a prison officer when a couple began to have sex in front of him. The detail he used to describe it seemed better placed in a Jackie Collins novel. A WTF moment stopped me in my tracks as I thought ‘WTF is this?’

William McKee provided insight into the enormous stress that prison staff endured in the job under the direction of a management system that cared little for either those in its charge or custody. ‘Duty of care’ might as well have been Latin. The dominant managerial ethos was one of ‘just get it done.’ McKee paid the price in terms of health and family for his moth to the flame-like dedication or ambition. Throughout his life as a governor he was forced to move home on many occasions, sometimes because loyalists or republicans had been collating information on his whereabouts and movements. On one occasion he rushed from his home having just been warned by security personnel that a loyalist hit squad was en route to kill him.

William McKee has been associated with calls for an overhaul of the prison service. Publicly he has expressed misgivings about the commitment of prison staff to make the changes necessary to create a modern enlightened prison regime. At the same time this book reveals another dimension to his character; one which resented concessions to prisoners. He frequently bemoaned the status of the Maze as being anything but a normal prison. This displayed a lack of understanding of the experience of the prison he helped govern. When prison staff are not held in check by prisoners their tendency towards violence increases proportionally. As the former governor of Peterhead Prison in Scotland – once infamous for its cages – told an audience in Edinburgh three years ago, a prisoner once explained to him the cause of prison violence: ‘Governor, your gang is bigger than my gang.’

William McKee, Governor: Inside the Maze, Gill & Macmillan. ISBN 978–07171–4591-1 Review first published in Fortnight, July/August 2009


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Readers might be interested in this counterpart, sort of, to the "Ben's Prison Blog" by another writer also now serving time. I reviewed Michael J. Santos' "Inside: Life Behind Bars in America" recently on my blog and Amazon US. Santos, like Ben, has a blog, if more commercially oriented towards marketing his hard-won insider's expertise: "MichaelSantos.net"

  4. Wonderfulformyage, each to their own. I think the Mark McGregor comment 'different people seem to find different things to interest them' in what they read is an apt response. You should write about your own findings from the book although you failed to say if you read it or not.
    Prisoner's Blog looks very interesting. Thanks for the link. Getting time to read it is now the challenge. Will follow it. 'Hate-filled victims groups' - what an interesting and provocative phrase he employs here. So useful in combating the veto that they seek to wield and which many are prepared to allow them.

    Fionnchú, as always, an excellent link. Thanks. Hope all is well with you. Moreover, hope to see you soon!!